Apps and other digital technology are great—until they aren’t. You may have heard worst-nightmare stories: fatal accidents due to someone’s being distracted by a smartphone; suicides triggered by cyberbullying or doomscrolling. On a less dramatic note, just about everyone has turned on a device to complete a specific project; spotted a link to a new app/game/article; and realized three hours later that the original, top-priority item has been neglected all that time.
Still, there’s such a thing as legitimate digital detours. Gold nuggets of information and opportunity do appear serendipitously. And everyone needs breaks to read, watch, or play something just for fun.
So, how to protect your digital life from mindless surfing and one-track-minded drudgery?
- Prioritize and schedule your time in advance. Be sure to give the top spots to the most important tasks (including long-term goals)—and to include break time.
- Watch those e-subscriptions, especially newsletters that require clicking separate links to read each article. Before starting a new subscription, ask yourself, “Does it help with my top priorities in life?” Every six months, review your existing subscriptions and consider, “Is this still important given my current top priorities?”
- Decide in advance what you’ll do when you spot an interesting side link. Have firm criteria for a quick decision on whether you’ll incorporate it into your current task, bookmark it for future review (have a set time on your calendar for that), or just let it go.
- Get someone to hold you accountable. There are even daring souls who invite the whole social-media world onto their accountability teams: “If I don’t log on/quit this thread/post this project by a set time, I’ll give $100 to the first person who calls me on it.”
- If you need search engines to work on major projects, consider using a more specialized database than Google. University, library, and medical-center websites (and our own BridgingApps Search Tool) are all organized to keep your search within reliable parameters.
Fighting Fire with Fire: Technology to Help Manage Your Screen Time
There are additional ways that digital technology can guard you against straying to the dark side of digital use.
- Planner apps and e-calendars help organize your priorities.
- Timer apps alert you to stop or start tasks. (For those prone to answering the buzz with “just a minute,” devices can also be set to actively turn off a function.)
- Notes apps make it quick and easy to file things for later reference.
- Many apps/accounts offer “no ads” settings with paid subscriptions. If you find it a real struggle to ignore distractions, consider whether a “premium” subscription might pay for itself in time and energy saved.
If You Have a Real Problem
Unfortunately, there are people so attached to their screens that neither alternative apps, nor planning, nor accountability seem to keep them from chasing rabbit trails around the internet every waking hour. Many researchers believe that “screen use disorder” is a legitimate medical addiction.
If you or your child have a “compulsive scrolling” habit that interferes with sleep, work, and social time; if you have repeatedly tried and failed to stop on schedule; if you feel jittery to the point of physical symptoms when you put down a device for long—you probably need professional help getting screen use back on a healthy keel. Talk to a case manager or therapist.
What are your favorite tips for healthy management of digital time? We welcome your comments!